Seven Princes by John R Fultz follows the story of D’zan a young prince from the land of Yaskatha who watches in horror as his entire family is slaughtered before his eyes and his throne is wrenched from his grasp by the devious and ultimately uninteresting Elhathym, a sorcerer from the old world come to regain his throne and try to take over the world, because that’s what bad guys do. Tied to D’zan’s fate are those of other princes from across the land, all of whom are completely archetypal and add absolutely nothing to the fantasy genre: you have the two brothers Tadarus and Vireon both of whom spend the entirety of the novel chest bumping their jock friends and feeling each other’s muscles, you have Tyro, who’s boring and Andoses, who’s also boring, all of whom, for one reason or another, wish to wage war against Elathym and his ally Ianthe. Then there’s Sharadza, who helps out by learning sorcery, and there’s Fangodrel, a bad guy, most notable because he betrayed his brothers, Vireon and Tadaurus, and his implied desire to have furious, disgusting, sex with his grandmother.
If you can’t tell, I don’t like most of the characters in Seven Princes, and it’s not necessarily because they’re odious, it’s because they’re completely uninteresting and featureless and just plain dull, they’re not living breathing human beings, they’re automatons, mimicking humanity but failing to grasp its subtleties, they’re facades that adhere to bland, uninspired clichés and if not that they’re just plain inconsistent; let me give you an example, towards the end of the novel D’zan suffers a mortal wound at the hand of Elhathym, but is saved from death because of his pure, unflinching, utter dedication to the unimaginatively named ‘sun god’, but he never even thinks about the sun god prior to that one moment, he’s too busy moping about how tough his life is and crying a lot. It’s a lazy deus ex machina, crapped out and never thought about again.
The other characters like Tyro and Andoses, Vireon and Tadarus, all just lack a personality, they just mould together into one big ol, homogenous mass, they all adhere to the same noble hero archetype, you know, the one that hasn’t been original since the sixties? Aside from being just generally not very good they all lack a presence on the page, they never become more than made up fantasy names with lots of apostrophes in them, there are no Conans or Elrics or Kanes, the kind of characters that dominate every facet of their novel, who stride across the page, sword in hand and brand themselves in the reader’s memory. despite Fultz’s best efforts to produce one there are no character’s so monumentally badass that the deprived sub-humans of the future will build huge chapels dedicated to their names, and roll around in fits of ecstasy at the mere mention of their name, nope, just a group of people going ‘meh’ and walking away, indifferent.
The same could be said of the setting in general, granted, it never falls back on the whole ‘elves, dwarves and dragons’ thing but it doesn’t do anything particularly good either; every city can either be summed up as ‘medieval European city’ ‘medieval European city with added giants’ or ‘medieval Arabian city.’ This is a world completely devoid of politics or personality or passion or life. This is a world without the mystery of Hyboria, without the variety of the multiverse, a world that is generic and tedious in every conceivable way. Fultz trys to dabble in metaphysics with his magic system, but, in trying to channel the magnificent madness of Moorcock he instead comes off as obtuse and pretentious, producing a system that makes no sense, carries no weight and becomes an utter chore to read and, perhaps most importantly, loses all sense of mystery.
Oh, and when your protagonist is the least competent character in your novel, even when he’s been through the mandatory six week training montage, you know there’s something wrong. When everyone else was busy not having a personality and mastering the art of warfare or, poetry or whatever, D’zan was obviously sitting in the corner, a bucket on his head, smacking himself with a wooden spoon, because he’s completely incompetent; When his family is massacred in front of him, he waits to be saved by his bodyguard, when everyone is fighting a giant primordial serpent he’s busy hiding behind a rock, when everyone else is plotting for war against the clichéd villains D’zan’s moping around the palace, thinking about how much his life sucks. He lacks any initiative, everything that’s achieved in his name is achieved by someone else, everything he does is suggested by someone else he doesn’t so much dedicate himself towards his goal of regaining his throne and avenging his family as he does begrudgingly accept that maybe he should get round to it, if he can be bothered. Admittedly, though, it gets better towards the end, but that’s 400 pages in, and trust me, you don’t want to read 400 pages of this. I read 500 pages, and yesterday, I strangled my therapist, even now I’m trying to apply nipple clamps to a fantasy novel. You don’t want to read 400 pages of this.
The plot isn’t much better, either; it’s uninspired, and whilst it isn’t completely generic like everything else it maintains the status quo by being uninteresting, it can be boiled down to kill the bad guy and save the world with added faffing around. Oh, and did I mention that there are no character arcs? not real ones anyway, a character might have everything stripped away from him, become so filed with hate he can’t walk down the street without burning five orphanages and a hospital, but he’ll still talk and act in the same way, he’ll still rush in to save all those orphans, despite being the one who put them in danger in the first place, because, you know, consistency.
There are flashes of brilliance in amongst all the faff, though, like a brief soujour in which Vireon travels to the icy north, discovers a long lost race of ice giants, a mysterious fox lady called Alua, and single handedly takes down something like thirteen giants, before being accepted in to their culture and reuniting them with the regular, non-ice giants. It was awesome. But then it was over, and right back we went to the boring old main plot, just in case I enjoyed myself too much. Then there’s a bit where D’zan is kept alive by the very same sorcery he combats, for a split second I saw a kind of Elric and Stormbringer relationship, where survival depends on the very thing you hate, the very thing that killed all your family and all your friends, I saw the kind of conflict that might pull this novel kicking and screaming back from the brink, but nope, it gets sorted out in the most unsatisfying way possible. Or maybe Fultz will weave a paragraph of beautiful prose, describing two lovers locked in each other’s arms in the depths of a dead city, ignoring it’s ghosts, refusing to heed it’s phantoms, simply enjoying the moss, the lichen the damp air and each other. But then Fultz writes some hackneyed line or phrase and vomits all over the mood.
So, the potential for excellence is there but it’s only ever glimpsed through the mounds of mediocrity, its dull sheen suppressed by a truck load of tedium. It’s spread too thin, it has pretentions towards grandeur, aspirations of majesty but just can’t quite reach them without making a few compromises, and you know, you just know, that if it focused itself just a little bit more, it could be good, or at least readable.
Seven Princes reads like one of those syfy original films; its grandiose dreams are restrained by horrible special effects and godawful acting, so that it becomes more of a pantomime then a fully-fledged epic. But perhaps, what’s most tragic about it is the way in which Fultz openly congratulates himself; ‘how could I turn away from such a compelling tale?’ smarms Lyrilan, the aforementioned scribe prince who’s set about chronicling D’zans journey. Shut up Lyrilan, just, just shut up.
© August, 2014 Connor Gormley
Connor Gormley has previously published reviews in Black Gate.